George Preston – A True Lincoln Highway Icon

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

Long before the conception of the National Lincoln Highway Association, as we spoke of in my last post, a character from Eastern Iowa was telling the story of the Lincoln Highway.  His name was George Preston.

george

George Preston was a self-promoter of that great road, the Lincoln Highway, and his own gas station, which is located along the Highway in Belle Plaine, Iowa. I personally met this iconic character back for the first time in 1990, around the same time he made his debut on the Johnny Carson Show. George was a collector who was proud of his finds and showed every individual each unique piece he had found over the years.

The last time I sat with Mr. Preston to hear his tales of the road was in the Spring of 1992.  His tales wound far and wide, bringing those who would listen deep into the story and making it hard for anyone, including myself, to want to leave. On this last occasion, George was promoting one of those cassette tapes of his very own work.  He asked me to buy one, and as I listened, I learned he had recorded himself rapping along to Burma Shave slogans. These slogans were put along the road to match the rhythms you would feel as you travelled along. As you drove, you would see such signs as: “When you grow old/And thin/Your head grows bald/But not your chin/BURMA SHAVE.” Now just imagine this fellow friend of the road rapping out to such a tune.

For a mere five dollars, I was able to own this lyrical treasure. Back then, a cassette tape was usually not quite as much, so I told George that five dollars was a bit high, but he assured me that the money was going to the restoration of his gas station.

This past year, I decided to create a George Preston likeness, and using the cassette tape I had purchased those many years ago, I created an interactive musical menagerie where anyone who visited the national Lincoln Highway conference could experience his talent.

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I unveiled this mechanical wonder to the public at the conference for all to experience In present day, it stands proudly in our humble museum in Grand Junction, Iowa, for all who visit to push the button and enjoy.

If you ever find yourselves traveling through Grand Junction, stop and get a few words of advice from my fellow friend of the road, Mr. George Preston.  It is a musical moment none should miss.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Another One in the Books

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

Just a few weeks ago, the Iowa Lincoln Highway Association, for which, as you all know, I am the Artist-in-Residence, hosted another successful national conference in Denison, Iowa.  This is the third time we have had the honor of hosting this conference here in the state I call home.

The first national conference we hosted was in 1994 in Ames, Iowa. The organization was a young thing, with this being the second ever national Lincoln Highway Association conference.  Despite our early fears, the conference was a roaring success and set the stage for the many national conferences to come.

The conferences rotate through the 13 states of the Highway every year. As the years went by, we in Iowa had our second chance to hold the conference ten years later in 2004. This conference, lovingly called “Out of the Mud,” was hosted in Cedar Rapids, at Coe College.   We not only pulled “out of the mud,” we roared out and held yet another successful event.

This now brings our journey up to today. In the late days of June, we had our third national conference. This time around, we chose to host the conference on the western side of the state, in the town of Denison in Crawford County. Now this county holds a special place in my own story, as if you recall from one of my earlier tales, my grandpa and many more came from Crawford County.

During the conference, we visited many local haunts along the road, including a theater named after a little known lady, Ms. Donna Reed.  Here we enjoyed some old shows and spent a little time out of the heat.  As I stepped back out into the light, I was spotted by Mr. Gordon Wolf of the Denison Review. As I recounted some of my journeys along the open road, Mr. Wolf transcribed them for you to read below:

“Denison has been host to a number of Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) members this week who are in town for the national conference. For some of the visitors, the stay in Denison is akin to a homecoming. Their roots are planted in the historic coast-to-coast highway and are also tapped into the community…LHJ 1

…John Fitzsimmons is a great storyteller. A founding LHA member when he was 32, John is from Boone, via Eureka, California. He grew up in Placerville, California, which is also on the Lincoln Highway.

As the artist in residence for the LHA, he is known as “Lincoln Highway Johnny.” He creates works of art about the Lincoln Highway, all for viewing, not for sale. A display of his work was at the Boulders Conference Center for this week’s national conference.

 

Another strong connection with the route is that John’s grandfather, Pat Fitzsimmons, helped build the Lincoln Highway.

“Back in 1992, everyone was excited about starting the Lincoln Highway Association,” he said. “But we had to find out where it was.”

The location of parts of the original route, dedicated on October 31, 1913, by the original Lincoln Highway Association, was unknown.

One of John’s jobs was to help paint the red, white and blue Lincoln Highway logo on telephone poles along the route. “I painted over 186 of them,” he said.

John can be distinguished from his fellow LHA members by the overalls and hat he wears, and the Lincoln Highway logos he painted on the toes of his shoes. He told how that came about.

 

He and a partner were painting the highway logo on telephone poles in Boone County in 1992. He was standing 10 feet up on a ladder, and a swirling wind was blowing the paint in circles. “I looked and had more paint on myself than on the pole,” he said.

LHJ shoes

“Then I looked down and saw there wasn’t a drop of paint on my shoes. So I said I would train the paint to make an “L” on my shoes.”

 

Like others, John has a connection not only with the Lincoln Highway but with Denison and Crawford County. He said his father, Glenn Fitzsimmons, and mother, Rosemary (Segebart), grew up in Vail and knew the Mullenger family – Reed’s family.

He said his aunt Beulah Davis worked for Heidi Mullenger, Reed’s sister, and his mother knew Reed’s brother.

 

His mother and father moved to California in 1953. His father died three years ago at age 89. His mother is 82 and lives in Eureka.

This week, John called his mother and said, “Guess where I am. At Cronk’s.”

In her youth, his mother often stopped at Cronk’s after roller skating outings. “She said they had the best burgers,” said John. In addition, his mother’s cousin worked at Cronk’s.

For John the association is not only about preserving the history of the historic route but is also about the people. “I like attending the conference because I see people I don’t get to see all the time” said John.

But he can’t attend every national conference. He last attended one in 2013 in Kearney, Nebraska. He wanted to but was unable to attend last year’s conference in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; he is a civil war reenactor.

“Every year we are losing members and are losing fine workers,” John said. “I want to see them.

 

“Everybody loves the road and the history,” he added.

 

“There’s something about the Lincoln Highway, but it’s not just about the concrete. It’s about what’s along the highway – the buildings and the heritage.”

To read more of about the conference as told by Mr. Gordon Wolf, head on over to Denison Lincoln Highway Conference.

As I told Mr. Wolf, the best part of these conferences is seeing my long time fellow travelers over the years. However, as with most things in this life, the best is followed by the worst, as we miss those who have journeyed along the path we all eventually must follow.

If you find yourself heading east along the road next year, stop by New Jersey, where the 2018 national conference will be hosted.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

 

He is known as… the Redbird Express

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

As you travel along the highway, you will meet characters who live alternative lifestyles from your own. A few years back, I had the great privilege of meeting a fellow traveler.  He does not follow my concrete path, but instead follows the road of rails. While he has a given name, Carl, he goes by his hobo name of the Redbird Express.

Best Redbird

The Redbird Express hails from Pennsylvania. Now Pennsylvania happens to be one of the thirteen states the Lincoln Highway travels through, so when I got to know the Redbird Express, he had found himself at a Lincoln Highway meeting in Jefferson, IA. The Redbird Express became intrigued by the Lincoln Highway Association and decided to become a member of our society. As a guest speaker at our meeting, Carl spoke of being crowned King of the Hobos at the Hobo Celebration in Brett, IA and spoke of his many adventures along the rails across the good ol’ USA.

The Redbird Express has also visited Boomtown, the coal mining hamlet I call home.  Upon his visit to my hamlet, I created this drawing of him, where he sits in a hobo camp along the tracks he traveled in the Midwest.

Although I have not seen the Redbird Express for some time, I heard the years have taken their toll and now, due to his health, he stays closer to his home.  I wish the Redbird Express all the best and that the rails come to meet him, just as the road comes to meet me.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Torque Fest 2017

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

The open road has been a bumpy one of late, which delayed some of my travels.  But I have returned and would like to talk about an “Alternative Style” car show I visited over the last weekend.

Near the Mississippi River in the Eastern Iowa town of Dubuque, Torque Fest happens every year.  I have been attending this event every year since its inception, where it started in Farley, IA and moved around until it landed finally in Dubuque.  Torque Fest is a celebration of the early creation of the American Hot Rod and all the culture that comes with it. While traversing the grounds, Bettys are plenty with rock-a-billy setting the soundtrack to the day.  The word of event is No-Billet, meaning no fancy bells and whistles.

john wells touqe festMost of the proceeds of the event go to a medical fund called Helping Hannah, who is the daughter of the founder, Mr. John Wells.  Mr. Wells, the featured man in my drawing today, founded this fest.  When I first met him, he was a purveyor of classic car films, using those funds to help his daughter.  Now he has graduated to hosting Torque Fest once a year and Iron Invasion, a car show much the same as this event, in Woolstock, IL.

This show has a flavor for all tastes, with old time races ranging from automobiles to motorcycles to chain races, to a swap meet where you can find treasures from a bygone era.  Every year in the early days of May, Torque Fest roars and rocks into Iowa, so if you should ever find yourself on the ol’ Mississippi during that time of the year, stop by and find out what this celebration of the past can give to you.

So thank you, Mr. John Wells for another successful celebration.  The cars and the Bettys were a sight for sore eyes, with the weather and the soundtrack setting the atmosphere needed to celebrate the contraptions inspired by the past.

From the Open Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

To learn more about Torque Fest, visit Vintage Torque Fest.

 

 

 

A New Sign on an Old Trail

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

As I sat along the ol’ Lincoln Highway, Highway 50 nowadays in Nevada, I thought to myself what those pioneers of old must have thought when they encountered their very first automobile. What a sight it must have been when they saw those new machines as they traveled east to west along the newly discovered route of the Lincoln Highway, but was known to the local pioneers then as an old wagon trail.

While the industrial age prevailed on the Eastern seaboard of the States and things changed quickly, the rural Western states, such as Nevada, knew the old life and grew slowly until after the first World War. So I dedicate this drawing of an old sourdough and his donkey to the thoughts and ideals of the past and how it once was and never will be again.

best-burro

From the Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Thunder Mountain

Greetings from the Open Road,

Hello again, it has been a while since we last had some correspondence. Today I bring you another illustration from the Lincoln Highway in Nevada.

Travelling what is known as Interstate 80 today in Nevada is a long and sightless journey.  So when you are lucky enough to run across an oddity, such as Thunder Mountain, it grabs your eye and your attention. I bring to you today a rough drawing, dedicated to a man’s beliefs and his talents.

thunder-mountain

Frank Van Zant, an eccentric character from Oklahoma, followed many paths of employment in his lifetime.  From preacher to aspiring sheriff, Mr. Van Zant found his Waterloo when his truck broke down in the middle of Nevada.  He took one look around and fell in love with this barren, wild area.  He was reborn on that day as Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, which gave him a strong path to his self-declared heritage (in actuality, he was mostly Dutch).

 

Over the years, Mr. Van Zant constructed a roadside attraction which drew interest among travellers, and with his “heritage” and beliefs, he drew visitors far and wide who were in search of enlightenment and the Chief as a guru.  His fame lasted just over a decade, because times changed, so does public opinion.  Thunder Mountain fell into disrepair, with Mr. Van Zant falling into a deep depression.  Sadly, he was unable to recover from this state of mind and left his world of his own accord in 1989.

When travelling on Interstate 80, aka the Lincoln Highway, take a few minutes while you pass through Nevada and visit Mr. Van Zant’s, or Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder, monument. Maybe there you will also come across some ghosts of the past or gain some enlightenment.

If you would like to learn more about Thunder Mountain, please visit Thunder Mountain Website.

From the Open Road (with a little sand in my eyes),

Lincoln Highway Johnny

Bumpass Hell Pit

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

While on my travels of the Lincoln Highway, I have ventured off the beaten path many times to learn and see more about the history of our great nation’s past. These journeys have led me to learn about some of the characters who used the nation’s natural and man-made beauty to make a buck or two.

One such character was Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, a miner who worked in the Sierra Nevadas in the 1860s. Mr. Bumpass, discovering the beauty of a thermal area near Mt. Lassen in California, decided to try to turn a dollar by leading folks up to the area.

Bumpass Hell Pit

On a fateful trip with a newspaper reporter, the excitable Mr. Bumpass made a grave mistake. He stepped through the crust of a boiling mud pot, badly scalding his leg. The ghastly injury later caused him to loose that same leg.  Unfortunately Mr. Bumpass’ brief turn as a tour guide entrepreneur ended almost quickly as he began.

MT Lassen Bumpass HellToday this beautiful geothermal area is named after the poor miner who lost a limb, and a few dollars, to his own personal “hell.”

As I sat on top of the lookout above Bumpass Hell, the sun was fading into the trees and I decided to sketch the character of Mr. Bumpass in honor of his attempted exploits that ulimately ended in failure. Though Mr. Bumpass did fail in his venture, we must never forget that it was these types of characters who built the West and our past, creating the great nation we have today.

From the Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

To learn more about the area of Bumpass Hell, take a gander at Bumpass Hell.

 

Indian Scout

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

By now we know I am a fan of things on four wheels, but I have been known to cut down to just two.  I like anything of the bygone era, especially when related to transportation.

Today, I bring you a picture of a Native American who was a horse wrangler for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, sitting atop of an Indian motorcycle.  How do I know this?  My grandpa, who you all have met, knew him and worked with the man behind the inspiration as a wrangler as well.

Best Indian

Pat Fitzsimmons, to me, Grandpa Pat, was a shirttail relative of Buffalo Bill Cody. His sister was married to Ed Cody, Buffalo Bill’s half-brother.  Pat befriended Buffalo Bill, who asked him if he wanted to join up with the show and participate.  My Grandpa decided to help by wrangling the horses and livestock for the show.

As a young man, Grandpa traveled to many different states with the show, curious about new places and new experiences.  By this point in the story of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the show stayed in the mainland of the good ol’ USA and did not travel abroad as it once had.  My grandpa told me of a story of a Native American who worked as a fellow wrangler.  As he had a form of dwarfism, he stayed behind the scenes.  Grandpa always said the Indian’s facial features were stoic and reminded him more of a Native American Chief than some of the other Indians who were in the show. This fellow told my grandpa that he was saving his hard earned money up to buy a motorcycle, an Indian Scout.  To this, my Grandpa replied earnestly that he figured he would have one someday soon.

Several years down the road, after Grandpa had left the show, and went back to farming and ranching in Vail, IA, he took a trip to Omaha with his cattle.  During this trip, he came upon a rare sight, an Indian riding an Indian motorcycle.  The man on the motorcycle recognized Pat and pulled alongside, stating triumphantly that he had bought his Scout.  They shared the rest of the afternoon, talking of old times and enjoying a few brews.

This picture is dedicated to Grandpa’s friend and his accomplished dream of an Indian Scout motorcycle.

From the Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

 

It Runs in the Family

Greetings, one more time today, Fellow Travelers,

Lincoln Hwy Near Vail IA

The picture above was taken around 1913 near Vail, IA.  The fellow standing tall in the air, on top of his road grader, is none other than my own grandpa, Pat Fitzsimmons.  Pat and his crew of cousins began carving out and smoothing the roadway for the Lincoln Highway, starting their section in Missouri Valley, IA, next to the Missouri River, and working their way to Vail, IA.

Missouri Valley to Vail

 

Now, as the Google Maps image shows, it would take an average person about 17 hours just to walk that distance.  If you add in horses, grading the road, and the Iowa summer heat, this would have taken quite some time over the years.

As you can see, the Lincoln Highway runs in my blood from the beginnings of this great road and will continue to be reflected in my art and my narratives for many years to come.

From the Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

 

 

Hobart Brown and Kinetic Art

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

Hobart 2

I would like to introduce you to Mr. Hobart Brown, the Glorious Founder of the Kinetic Sculpture Races in Northern California (and beyond) which, to this day, starts in Arcata, CA and ends in Ferndale, CA.

Hobart Brown

I met Hobart back in the late 70s while I was studying at the College of the Redwoods in the Art Program.  Hobart had an art gallery in Ferndale, CA, full of his specialty, metal sculptures. His biggest activity was the Kinetic Sculpture Race, which involves large moving works of art that must be hand or food operated only and must be capable of going over a variety of terrain.

I befriended Hobart and went to many of his art openings on Friday nights over the course of two years.  He was kind enough to let college students bring one piece of art to showcase on those nights. These gatherings were often similar to costume parties or masquerades.

The last time I visited with Hobart, he was plagued as many of us are by the ailments of age, with severe rheumatoid arthritis affecting him.  However, he kept in good spirits, focusing on his work to keep him going. Unfortunately, the world lost Hobart in 2007.  However, his legacy lives on around the world through the many kinetic sculpture races that occur every year and through the artwork he leaves behind.

Hobart

Lincoln Highway Johnny presenting his artwork to a fellow Kinetic enthusiast at the Kinetic Sculpture Museum in Eureka, CA.

The drawing above is a tribute to Hobart and his creation, the Original People Powered Bus:

From the Road,

Lincoln Highway Johnny

If you would like to learn more about the museum, please visit Kinetic Sculpture Museum, and to learn more about the races Hobart inspired, please visit Kinetic Universe and Wiki of Kinetic Races.